In 2013, the Leader of the Communist Party of China, and the country’s president Xi Jinping announced his new plan to the world. He spoke of a China-led “Silk Road Economic Belt” based on the principle of the old trade route that connected east to west, centuries ago.
Promising a “win-win” situation for all those involved, and stating that China would never interfere in the internal affairs of the countries involved, interest was minimal and non-committal.
Fast forward six years and the “One Belt, One Road” (BRI) project has signed up 124 countries and 29 international organisations to date. The latest signatories to the initiative include Italy, Luxembourg, and Malta.
Thousands of infrastructure projects are now underway under the portfolio of the BRI and the concept is well embedded into the Communist Party’s official policies. On paper it is run by the National Development and Reform Commission headed by He Lifeng, but the core of its decision making is the shady “Small Leadership Group” headed by Vice-Premier Han Zheng.
Heng is not just a member of Politburo of the CCP’s Central Committee, but he is considered to be one of the most powerful men in China, enjoying direct access to Xi Jinping himself.
But unpicking exactly what the project entails is not particularly easy. Investments have been made in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, and China has recently completed construction of its first overseas naval base in Djibouti of all places. Railways, airports, highways, bridges, and tunnels- all funded by money from Beijing have sprung up across countless countries but it is almost impossible to find a comprehensive list of BRI projects. Information on contracts, costs, and loans is not available, and even the government portal “Belt and Road Portal” seems designed to confuse.
In Europe, fragmented information confirms that Chinese state-owned enterprises have major stakes in twelve ports including Piraeus harbor. The government also has large shares in the Maltese state-owned energy company – a deal that has been clouded by controversies and allegations of kickbacks to Maltese politicians and the murder of a journalist.
China also controls a significant percentage of the continents airports including Heathrow, Toulouse, and Frankfurt. They also completely control the only airport in Albania, Nënë Tereza Airport, as well as Slovenia’s main aeronautical hub.
Following accusations of working to control countries through possession of their infrastructure, and “debt trap diplomacy” the Chinese stand firm in their denials.
The facts state otherwise.
A year after China took over the Piraeus container terminal, Greece blocked an EU statement that was critical of China’s human rights record at the Human Rights Council, calling it “unconstructive criticism of China”. Both China and Greece deny that this instance, and Greece’s blocking of EU condemnation of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, had anything to do with diplomacy between the two countries. Philip Le Corre of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace suggested however that many BRI countries have changed their stance and become “soft supporters” of China on the international stage.
In Montenegro, The China Road and Bridge Corporation is constructing the first phase of the Bar-Boljare highway that stretches 30m high and will cover a distance from Italy, through Romania, Montenegro and Serbia. Described as one of the crucial Belt and Road initiatives in Europe, it has sent the debt of the small Balkan state soaring and forced the government to raise taxes. In addition to these measures, public sector wages have been frozen and the benefits of 22,000 mothers have been lowered.
In Macedonia, the former prime minister was accused of soliciting kickbacks totally EUR 16 million from the Sinohydro Company. It remains unclear if the Chinese paid up, but the 56km stretch of the Kicevo-Ohrid highway was completed without passing through the public procurement process.
A report by the European Institute for Security Studies adds that what happened in Macedonia is “indicative of the Chinese model of infrastructure investment in the Western Balkan region” where Chinese companies “have been awarded the contracts directly by the governments rather than through a competitive bidding process.”
And in Albania, where China Everbright Limited bought 100 percent of shares in Tirana International Airport, Geo-Jade, was quick to take over Bankers Petroleum, a company involved in a 60 million euro tax dispute with the Albanian government. Bankers has the full rights to develop the Patos-Marinza oilfield, Europe’s largest onshore oil reserve, and a 100 percent interest in the Kuçova oilfield, Albania’s second largest.
But it is not just infrastructure that is not immune to the long hand of Beijing. A number of countries have taken significant steps towards banning or restricting the operations of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant.
Following a number of legal woes including intellectual property theft, fraud, and arrests for espionage, an increasing number of nations are reassessing their plans to introduce Huawei 5G, and some have even banned products by the company completely.
Then on 25 March, international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, reported on an investigation into “China’s pursuit of a New World Media Order”.
Giving examples of the Chinese government’s attempt to control information beyond its own borders, it described the situation as posing a “threat to press freedom throughout the world”.
Ranking 176 out of 180 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, RSF called out the country on the strategy they employ to achieve their goals. Buying extensive advertising in international media, purchasing stakes in portals, opening branches of Chinese media, and employing blackmail, intimidation and harassment to those who criticise China are just some of the tactics they are accused of using.
“In the spirit of the Beijing regime, journalists are not intended to be a counter-power but rather to serve the propaganda of states,” says Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of RSF. “If democracies do not resist, Beijing will impose his view and his propaganda, which is a threat for journalism and democracy”.